Last night was a double-header at the PuSh Festival. It started at Performance Works, with local collective Hong Kong Exile's latest genre-defying work. In Foxconn Frequency (No. 3): For Three Visibly Chinese Performers, HKE project lead Remy Siu uses game systems software to drill three pianists (fellow HKE member Natalie Tin Yin Gan, the classically trained Vicky Chow, and a young male prodigy who unfortunately is not named) in various keyboard exercises. They do so while sitting in front of computer monitors hooked up to 3-D printers (the inclusion of which I did not fully understand). As they complete the exercises they have been assigned, a live camera feed projects their images on the screen behind them, a red countdown clock indicating the time in which they have to complete the task, and a white line showing the progress of their labour (the projections, including brilliantly edited satellite map images, are by HKE member Milton Lim). If the performers fail to complete their exercises in the assigned time, or if they make a mistake along the way, a red Chinese character will flash on the screen. If they succeed, a white character will appear.
Over the course of the work's 80 minutes, the repetition of this conceit moves from being dramatically compelling to being sensorily overwhelming and exhausting to being just plain boring, sometimes within the space of only a few minutes. In this, the "theatre" of human-machine interface that Siu and his collaborators create in this piece presumably mimics the conditions of factory-line assembly at any one of the plants owned by the real Foxconn, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer (its clients include Apple and Sony), with the company's Shenzhen location having attracted worldwide attention for a spate of worker suicides. Competition is, of course, what structures most of the action in this work: the performers are playing against the computer, but also each other, and the countdown clocks, combined with the complexity of the exercises, ramp up the dramatic stakes. I was especially drawn in at one point when Gan kept failing at a particularly tricky passage; she had to do it over and over again until she got it right, and by the end the relief in my own body when she finally succeeded was physically palpable. It's perhaps to be expected that the professional pianist, Chow, would have the lowest failure count by the end of the piece; that said, at the beginning of Foxconn the young boy--a model of cool calm throughout--was more than keeping his own.
The work is not entirely cutthroat. At various moments, the pianists are required to collaborate, with Gan and the young boy, positioned on either side of Chow, performing one passage repeatedly, eventually finding the required synchronicity in their timing. And even more interesting is when, after the boy has mysteriously opted out of the game altogether by leaving the stage (perhaps a comment on child labour or on the suicides of young Foxconn workers), Chow and Gan work to game the system itself, deliberately failing at their assigned tasks. The somewhat heavy hand of social commentary that gets imposed at the end of the piece, including a projection of a poem by Xu Lizhi, a writer and Foxconn worker who committed suicide, suggests that there is still some work to be done integrating medium and message, especially in terms of implicating and involving the audience. To this end, I wonder if in future iterations of Foxconn Frequency (will there be a number 4?) whether an immersive and interactive stage design might not be something to explore. That the audience was invited to tour the performers' play stations after the end of the performance suggests the potential in such an option.